Friday, June 17, 2016

Visible Astronomy: Colonel Clapp Takes on Newton

William H. Miner’s maternal grandfather, Ephraim Wheeler Clapp, was born in 1796 in Salem, New York. He was one of the six children of Stephen Clapp, a Revolutionary War veteran who operated a mill, and Catherine Wheeler. Ephraim served in the War of 1812, and was thereafter known as “Colonel Clapp.” He married Sarah Rice in 1814 and they established a farm at East Salem and had nine children. Martha, their second daughter, was William Miner’s mother.
Title page of Ephraim Clapp’s manuscript

Sarah Small, a cousin of William’s, recalled that Grandfather Clapp was “a great student. Could tell you all about the different planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and which one would be the ruling planet for the year, and tell of the big and little dippers and where they were placed, and each year would write it all down. He had complied quite a book on different subjects. He was always pleased when some of the friends came in to visit them, and would be interested in his writings on these subjects.”

A portion of this manuscript, written between 1846 and 1850 and titled “Visible Astronomy,” is in the collection of the Alice T. Miner Museum. Colonel Clapp began his text with a bold claim: “In the following work I propose to introduce a new System of Astronomy, and if in so doing the Newtonian system, should be assailed as incorrect, or if it should merely be annihilated, my only apology is that I have not at any time of my life fully believed in that system.” 

Portrait of Newton by
Godfrey Kneller, 1702
Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. In this book, he laid out the laws of motion and of universal gravitation, and showed that these laws—which could be expressed mathematically—explained both celestial and earthly phenomena: the motion of the planets, tides, equinoxes, and so on. Newton’s work was seen by many as definitive proof of the validity of the heliocentric theory, and by the mid-18th century the Newtonian model of the universe was broadly accepted across Europe and North America.

However, this did not mean that Newton was universally accepted, or that people agreed with all aspects of his work. Challengers to Newton ranged from those who saw unexplained problems in his theories (such as the precise nature and source of gravity) that they attempted to resolve, all the way through proponents of fringe theories like Flat- and Hollow-Earthers. Others objected to Newton on scriptural grounds, arguing that his picture of the universe was contrary to the Bible’s description of sun, moon, and stars fixed in a firmament that revolved around the earth. Some people felt that Newton’s mechanistic universe, running on mathematical principles, opened the door to rationalism and free thought.
Clapp’s diagram showing Newton’s supposed error
regarding the size of the sun.

Still, by Ephraim Clapp’s day, anti-Newtonianism was a pretty eccentric position. His objections to Newton seem to have come from his belief that Newton was mistaken about some fundamental facts. Clapp argued that the sun cannot be as large as Newton says it is, because if it were, the earth would never experience days and nights of equal length. Moreover, Clapp claimed, if Newton were correct about the size of the sun and the distance of the earth’s orbit around it, the earth would have to be moving so fast that gravity would cease to function and “every thing moveable would fall from the earth.” (This is just in the first two pages of the manuscript, by the way.)

Page from Principia Mathematica
I am not a scientist, but it seems to me that Clapp’s theories are doubtful, to say the least. But his manuscript does raise some interesting points about how ordinary people understood science and tried to incorporate it into their own lives. It would be very interesting to know where Clapp got his knowledge about the Newtonian system. Principia Mathematica is a dense text, full of mathematical equations and diagrams—and it was in Latin. So relatively few people actually read it in its original form, instead relying on translations and books that simplified Newton’s work for a general audience, such as The System of the World, Demonstrated in an Easy and Popular Manner: Being a Proper Introduction to the Most Sublime Philosophy, published in 1740. Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries also had access to a wide variety of encyclopedic works on natural history aimed at the general public. Astronomy had an important place in these texts. In addition, lecturers traveled around the country, giving talks and performing scientific demonstrations. Ephraim Clapp might very well have read these types of books and attended scientific lectures. But his ideas about the nature of the universe seem to have been entirely his own.


  1. What a fascinating article. How cool is this! It's so rare these days to encounter original thinking (even if it does seem a little... scientifically doubtful). Thanks for sharing this. I don't live in Chazy anymore, but I really enjoy your fb posts.

  2. Thanks so much! "Original thinking" is definitely a good way of describing Col. Clapp's ideas!